Eden in East London?

Today’s wildlife adventure took place a couple of hundred metres from my office in Aldgate East, in the innermost city part of the City of London. I stood for 20 minutes at lunchtime and tried to work out how many species I could spot on the patch of waste ground I normally walk right past. Because I’d neglected to take notes, I lost count. But I definitely saw some ferns unfurling, docks, thistles, more types of grass than I could recognise, and nettles covered in various snails. Oh yes, plus different flies, bees and wasps (sorry, entomologists, I’m especially bad at naming insects).

What does this gloriously fecund area look like? Here’s a picture.

Eden or Wasteland? 30 Days Wild

You’re looking at a total eyesore, aren’t you? Well, not quite. There’s beauty there – you’ve just got to work out how to recognise it, because it’s beauty of an unconventional kind.

From Eyesore to Ice Age

Let me tell you a story. This (and every) patch of waste ground hosts a small-scale replay of what Britain went through after the last ice age. As the ice gradually retreated, it scoured the earth clear of pretty much all life, just as waste ground is stripped at the beginning of dereliction. After such a profound purge, all new life must come from elsewhere, whether that’s local colonies of survivors, or places of refuge far away.

When life arrives, it occupies the territory in waves: first in are the pioneer species like mosses and lichens. These break up the surfaces they grow on and begin to create soil. You’ll often also find free-living blue-green algae, which enrich the soil by converting nitrogen in the atmosphere to soil-based nutrients.

Next come grasses and flowering plants, followed by perennials, then woody plants like brambles. Finally, if the site is left to its own devices, trees will grow, and eventually become woodland. This wave-like process of colonisation by plants has been much studied by ecologists, who call it succession.

A Miniature Eden

Because waste ground is uneven, and full of all sorts of rubble and junk with varying textures, it tends to contain a really large number of micro-habitats. And as succession moves on, more and more micro-habitats emerge: for example, grasses and brambles offer shelter to tender plants and seedlings, and also to animal life. It might not be what we normally think of as attractive, but every plot of derelict land is potentially a miniature garden of Eden, giving rise to all kinds of life.

And if that’s not a special kind of beauty, I don’t know what you’d call it.

Too Tidy for Wildlife

Contrast the patch of waste land above with the two manicured and very pleasant parks in the same area (pictures below). They’re lovely in their own way, and I’ve eaten my packed lunches in both of them, but they’re not bursting with wildlife in the same way. It’s important to know that whenever a derelict patch of land is developed, the variety of wildlife in the area tends to decrease.

Need this be the case? I don’t know, and indeed it seems defeatist to say that it does. What I do know is that I’d love to see more urban planning which really takes wildlife into account. But that’s a blog post for another day.

Green and Pleasant, but Where's the Wildlife? 30 Days Wild Tidy but Lacking in Wildlife - 30 Days Wild

What do you think? Is there a compromise between a tidy area and wildlife-rich one? Have you seen any interesting wildlife on waste ground?

Where The Wild Things Are (and where they aren’t)

In case you haven’t noticed, today is the first day of June. It’s also the first day of 30 Days Wild, an excellent scheme to get us all outside and having encounters with wildlife every day for a month. I signed up in a flurry of optimism a few weeks ago because I think I’m Liz Bonin. I imagined myself spending June in a birding hide somewhere, or skipping through ancient woodland singing madrigals.

Today it dawned on me that I’m not Liz, and I’m not Michaela Strachan, either. I’m a busy person who lives in a city and works at a sedentary job in another, even bigger city. Even worse, I’m not going to be in the country for the entire month: I’m going to be in (you’ve guessed it) a city somewhere in Europe for about half of it. Where the heck am I going to find any wildlife?

Fortunately, my definition of wildlife is a broad one. If it’s alive and we humans aren’t deliberately cultivating or farming it, it counts as wildlife (this is legit, by the way, because I did biology at college and I should know – honest). It includes plants which have managed to find an existence outside gardens and parks, and the insects, birds and fungi all around us. So all I really needed to do to have my very first wild day was walk home more slowly than usual.

In a walk lasting 50 minutes (as opposed to my more usual brisk 35), here’s what I saw:

Mosses and lichens growing on walls. Some of the lichen was actually growing on some of the moss! Just look at that beautiful yellow colour (I’ll write about that in later blog posts because it’s a bit special).

Moss on Wall - 30 Days Wild Lichen on Wall - 30 Days Wild Yellow Lichen on Moss on Wall - 30 Days Wild

A whole load of overgrown verges just bursting with plant life. There weren’t many insects around since it was fairly cold, wet and windy, but I did see a lot of flowers.

Abundant Plant Life - 30 Days Wild Abundant Plant Life - 30 Days Wild Abundant Plant Life - 30 Days Wild

A derelict school where plants of all kinds had pushed through the cracks in the damaged path, and grown under the fence.

Plant Life Under Fence - 30 Days Wild Plants Reclaim the Path - 30 Days Wild

Quite a lot of slugs and snails (some of which reminded me of a really fun citizen science project that ran a few years ago).

Banded Snail - 30 Days Wild Slug - 30 Days Wild

A tree stump teeming with camera-shy ants and showing beautiful spalting.

Tree Stump with Camera-Shy Ants - 30 Days Wild Tree Stump with Spalting - 30 Days Wild

A wild patch left unmown in my local park. Once again, this was hard to capture on camera, but it was beautiful. The long grasses waved enchantingly in the wind and their numerous awns gave them a pretty, fluffy appearance.

Abundant Waving Grasses - 30 Days Wild

So what are the take-home messages from my first wild day?

1. Wildlife lives all around us, so having a wildlife encounter really is just a matter of taking the time to notice what’s already there. Some of it is so commonplace and familiar that we hardly see it, and some of it is so small that we need to take the trouble to find it. Not much trouble, mind, but some nonetheless.

2. Untidiness equals diversity. I saw far more different plants in untended verges and derelict grounds than in any of the (admittedly lovely) tidy gardens I passed. And I’m sure there were many more insects and other animals keeping a low profile among the chaos than I managed to find.

I enjoyed my walk a lot. Maybe I should do the same activity for each of my 30 days wild, or at least the ones where I’m working. Instead of just plugging in to an audiobook and trudging home at top speed, I’ll take the trouble to notice the wildlife around me at different times of day and in different weather conditions on my walk home. It’ll be kind of an impressionist approach to nature.

How will you be spending your wild June days?